CARACAS, Venezuela — Acting on the orders of President Nicolás Maduro, riot police officers and soldiers this week blocked a march of thousands of student protesters, doused them with pepper spray, blasted them with water cannons and bombarded them with tear gas.
A few hours later, Mr. Maduro invited the student protest leaders to sit down to peace talks, promising to listen and chat with respect and affection.
After more than a month of protests and bloody unrest, Mr. Maduro has tried to blunt the greatest political challenge to his young presidency in two distinct ways: He has projected an image of openness and inclusion, while simultaneously cracking down.
Mr. Maduro has repeatedly called for dialogue, even holding a series of televised meetings that he calls peace conferences. But with only a handful of his opponents attending the conferences, and with security forces striking out at demonstrators around the country, some of his opponents say that Mr. Maduro’s kinder face is likely intended only to deflect international criticism, which has come most strongly from the United States. They say his police tactics aim to provoke the demonstrators.
But his supporters say he is trying to restore order.
On Wednesday, events followed a now-familiar trajectory. After police officers and soldiers blocked what had been a peaceful march of thousands of students and other protesters before they could reach the center of Caracas, angry demonstrators began throwing rocks. The police responded with tear gas, and an ugly melee ensued.
“We wanted to have a peaceful march, but the government wants us to look like the bad guys,” said Antonio José Pérez, 39, the manager of an electrical goods store, who had joined the student-led march. As many others had, he stayed on to watch the confrontation, retreating occasionally when the sting of tear gas became too strong.
But he did not condemn the protesters’ violent reaction. “What can we do?” he said. “They have guns. We have rocks and the flag.”
The wave of protests rocking Venezuela, which has the world’s largest oil reserves and is a major energy supplier to the United States, began in early February with student demonstrations against the country’s high rate of violent crime.
The protests soon widened to encompass frustrations over the crippled economy, pent-up opposition anger at the governing party’s monopoly on power and, now, the aggressive tactics against demonstrators ordered by Mr. Maduro, a leftist who vows to continue the socialist-inspired revolution of Hugo Chávez, the longtime president who died last year.
The student-led march on Wednesday was held a month after two protesters and a government supporter were shot dead during a day of demonstrations in Caracas, the first in a string of what the government says are more than two dozen deaths linked to protests around the country.
The death toll grew on Wednesday when the government said that three people, including a student and a National Guard officer, were fatally shot in Valencia, the country’s third largest city.
The government has routinely sought to block and outmaneuver the protesters, and that was true as well on Wednesday in Caracas, when, even as it refused to allow the opposition march, it organized a march of its own student supporters.
The government also staged what it called a “Concert for Peace” at a spot that concentrated its supporters in an area that could bring them into conflict with the protesters.
The protest march, which included students and other government opponents, started without trouble in an opposition enclave and then moved through the leafy campus of the Central University of Venezuela, one of the country’s main universities and a Unesco World Heritage site, renowned for its modernist architecture and works of public art.
But when the marchers tried to leave the campus, they found their way blocked by the phalanx of police officers and National Guard soldiers.
After meeting with officers in charge of the blockade, a group of student leaders announced they had been told that once the pro-government countermarch passed, they would be allowed to proceed.
But the negotiations with the police dragged on and tensions rose, with many marchers chanting “Let us pass!” Dozens of hard-core protesters began to gather at the front of the march, near police lines, many covering their faces with bandannas or T-shirts, against the admonition of student leaders, who used megaphones to urge nonviolence.
“They want to provoke us to fight with them and then Maduro will come out and say that they are the protectors of the people,” said one of the hooded protesters, Manuel Madrid, 17, a high school student, who nonetheless said he was ready to do battle with the police. He wore a thick glove on his right hand to protect it when hurling tear gas canisters back at the police.
Finally, after about an hour and a half, negotiations with the police broke down.
Several student leaders went to the front of the march, linked arms and then walked into the line of riot police officers, who repelled them withplastic shields. They were doused with a torrent of pepper spray and drenched by water cannons.
A few protesters threw stones at the police, but others in the crowd urged calm. There was a brief pause, and then the student leaders tried again to restart the march. Again they were pushed back, pepper sprayed and hit with jets of water.
More stones started to fly, the police responded with tear gas, and the entrance to the landmark campus turned into a battleground.
The students marchers had intended to reach the office of the defender of the people, a national ombudsman.
Instead, Mr. Maduro went there later in the day to stage a television broadcast, which was depicted as a “peace conference” with pro-government students.
He defended his decision to block the protest march. “If this group, infiltrated by violent fascist groups, had entered Caracas, by now we would be lamenting I don’t know how many material losses and losses of life,” Mr. Maduro said.
At the same time, he extended his invitation to the student protest leaders to meet with him.
“I will listen to everything they have to tell me and then they have to listen to me,” Mr. Maduro said. “Everything I am going to say, I will say it with respect and affection.”
A version of this article appears in print on March 15, 2014, on page A4 of the New York edition with the headline:
In Venezuela, Conciliatory Talk but Combative Tactics.